Houthier fired drones and missiles in Abu Dhabi attacks, investigative findings

Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen used advanced missiles and drones to target the United Arab Emirates on Monday, according to people informed of the investigation – a deadly demonstration of the growing threat to the security of the Middle East posed by Tehran’s brave allies.

The Houthi attack was the most visible display of military progress made by a militia that less than a decade ago relied on machine guns and rocket launchers, but which can now help Iran project power nearly 1,000 miles away from its Yemeni mountain strongholds. The Houthis have hit the United Arab Emirates before, but this was the first time the Emirates recognized it.

Monday’s attack was the latest in a series of provocative measures taken by Houthis in recent months that have raised alarms from Washington to Riyadh.

Earlier this month, the Houthis seized an Emirati-flagged ship off the coast of Yemen, which they have refused to release. In November, the militant force took control of the closed US embassy in San’a, the Yemeni capital, and has rejected the US demand that they release more Yemenis who worked for the US. The Houthis have also detained two UN workers for more than two months.

With its strikes at Abu Dhabi airport and a state-owned oil plant, the Houthis apparently took revenge for the United Arab Emirates ‘intensified role in supporting the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemeni civil war, resulting in the Houthis’ first significant setback last week after years. of territorial gains. Three people were killed in Abu Dhabi, prompting an airstrike by the Saudi coalition that killed 11 people in Yemen, including at least five civilians, the UN said.

Beyond the battlefield, Houthi’s ability to strike at the heart of rival capitals in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates gives Tehran leverage in its negotiations for nuclear containment in Vienna and is one of the forces that has driven a greater geopolitical conversion in the Middle East in recent months.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels use armed drones with surprising success. WSJ reporters describe their increasingly sophisticated and recently confirmed attacks. Illustration: Laura Kammermann

Iran has provided political support to the Houthis since taking over San’a in 2014, in the chaotic years following the Arab Spring. The United States, Israel and the Gulf states say Iran has also given the Houthis increasingly sophisticated weapons and technical know-how to target rivals at will.

Even if the Saudi-led coalition’s current escalation of its air strikes results in some battlefield victories, any possible peace deal is likely to cement the Houthi gains in Yemen, and in return Tehran’s influence there, close observers from the region said.

“Iran has won the war in Yemen,” said Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a non-resident fellow and golf expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “What Iran has done to the Houthis is quite impressive.”

Saudi officials say their current military campaign, which has pushed the Houthis back on key fronts, has the potential to turn the tide in the war and force the militants to engage in serious negotiations.

In recent weeks, officials said, the Houthis have had trouble recruiting more fighters, suffered steep losses on the battlefield and lost support from Yemenis who are tired of endless war. Monday’s attack, they said, was a sign of Houthi desperation as they tried to divert attention from their setback in Yemen.

“I do not want to say that Iran won,” said a Saudi official. “Winning for us is a political solution. Winning for Iran is constant chaos.”

Iranian officials have expressed support for the Houthi case but denied having armed them. On Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh did not condemn the attack on the United Arab Emirates as many other nations did during the last day. He called for a political solution to end the Yemeni war.

“Siege and military attacks are not the solution to the Yemeni crisis, and such actions are escalating tensions in the region,” he said.

Ending the war in Yemen has become a litmus test of US-Saudi relations. The failed Saudi-led campaign has been marked by misguided airstrikes that killed thousands of civilians and an economic blockade that created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. U.S. lawmakers across the political spectrum have joined forces to limit U.S. support for the unpopular military campaign in the Gulf.

The riddle was clear in the wake of the Houthi attack, when the Saudi-led coalition carried out airstrikes on Houthi-controlled territory, which the UN said killed several civilians, triggering the resignation of UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis responded to Monday’s airstrikes, which, according to the UN, killed several civilians.


Photo:

Hani Mohammed / Associated Press

President Biden has told the Saudis that the solution to the conflict in Yemen is central to repairing their strained relations with Washington. Shortly after joining, Mr Biden cut off US military aid to Saudi Arabia for offensive operations.

In response to Monday’s attack, Emirati officials are expected to ask Mr. Biden to officially reclassify the Houthi forces as a terrorist organization, according to people informed of the plans.

Early in his presidency, Mr. Bite the Houthis from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations because of concerns that the designation could make it harder for aid groups to get food, fuel and other critical supplies to vulnerable Yemenis.

The Trump administration put the Houthis on the list in the declining days of Donald Trump’s presidency, a move that the Biden administration reversed as part of a shift in the US approach to Yemen.

The Biden administration has imposed sanctions on specific Houthi leaders, but has rejected efforts to put the group on the terror list. The Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that it would continue to target individuals and entities prolonging the conflict in Yemen, but indicated that it was not likely to bring the group back on the terror list.

The Emirati’s preliminary investigation on Monday night confirmed the Houthis’ own allegations that they deployed drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles in the attack, the weapons group has also used against targets deep inside Saudi Arabian territory. Saudi officials said they shot down nine drones by Houthi forces into the kingdom on Monday.

Officials in the United Arab Emirates have not publicly confirmed which weapons were used, revealed traces of the debris or revealed whether their air defenses were triggered, as would be expected if ballistic missiles were used.

According to a confidential report by the UN Security Council, seen by The Wall Street Journal, the Houthis have developed the ability to build drones, short-range missiles and other weapons using materials such as engines and electronics that they buy locally or come from a complex network of intermediaries. Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

But the longer-range weapons are either Iranian or based on Iranian design, Houthi missile experts said.

“The Iranians provide the expertise behind these attacks,” said Christopher Long, an intelligence chief at Dubai-based security firm Neptune P2P Group.

The UAE, Iran and the Houthis have a complicated relationship. While Iran and Abu Dhabi have been at loggerheads for years politically, the two countries are important trading partners and maintain high-level diplomatic contacts. The Houthis and the United Arab Emirates had a ceasefire following the Emirati decision in 2019 to withdraw most of its forces from Yemen, an agreement that the militia said was broken when Emiratis helped local militias take back the oil-rich province of Shabwa in last week.

The Houthis first claimed to have used a land attack cruise missile in 2017 when Yemeni militants said they were firing a “winged cruise missile” at a nuclear power plant in Abu Dhabi. The Emirates rejected the Houthi claim, saying that no attacks were launched in their direction and that a missile would have been intercepted, indicating that if the Houthis fired a missile, it would fail.

In 2018, the Houthis carried out a drone strike at Abu Dhabi International Airport, according to people familiar with the attack. But the United Arab Emirates denied that it had taken place and there was never any evidence of significant damage.

In March 2021, the Houthis unveiled a new unmanned aerial vehicle called the Samad-4, which carries two rockets and reportedly has a range of more than 1,200 miles, the UN report says.

Last year, the group also targeted ports and ships in the Saudi Red Sea with waterborne improvised explosive devices that were able to hit 1,000 kilometers off Yemeni shores for the first time, the document said.

Write to Dion Nissenbaum at dion.nissenbaum@wsj.com and Benoit Faucon at benoit.faucon@wsj.com

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